Of clematis and climates

2009-01-07 00:00

People all over the world like to describe their climates as “all four seasons in one day”. And so it is with ours. Not only that, we have been getting all four seasons in one month. But so, I expect, have people all over the world. Now it’s called climate change.

Strange though, that when we had May floods in the fifties, September floods in 1987, February floods in 1988 and when we — they — had a blizzard that buried sheep back in the early 20th century, and frost on Christmas day in the eighties, and a drought in 1983, and another in 1993, nobody called it Climate Change with capital letters. However, I have to concede that climate change, having taken place a lot over multi millennia, certainly has speeded up and become more extreme of late. I reluctantly have to bow to sound scientific research and concede (unlike Sara Palin) that something ominous is going on.

I may be wrong but I seem to remember that that woman [Palin] believes that Armageddon is at hand and that Alaska will be the haven where the remnants of humankind will take refuge. Whereas I, being no less subjective albeit with a belief in evolution, imagine the world being engulfed by floods and earthquakes, but leaving a little haven of survivors, up here in the southern Drakensberg, learning anew how to rub sticks together to make fire, and cherishing blackjack weeds and Rosa eglanteria and fig trees (the edible kind) for a food supply, no longer caring that they had no business here in the first place.

All that being as it may, snow in September has been the norm since I moved up into this rarefied atmosphere. This year we were, as usual, only too thankful for that heaven-sent precipitation.

Once snow raises the water table, droughts are easier to bear. And it’s always a heart-stopping moment, when, usually in September, one opens the curtain one eerily quiet morning to see a new white wonderland spread before one; the trees, the pin oaks, filigreed pyramids etched in silvery white, and shrubs, spread-eagled shapelessly under random mantles of snow; the pointed picket fences hatted with snowy pixie hats and pergola posts topped with plump toques. Last September nothing came to much harm because a late frost didn’t follow.

So the snow stood the earliest rambling roses in good stead. Beauty of Glazenwood clothed the old apple tree and mingled with Clematis montana. A somewhat flattened Mme Leonie performed to perfection. The Rambling Rector set off around a garden shed last summer and emerged on the other side. As all these faded, Rosa veilchenblau, Penelope, Buff Beauty and Albertine followed.

However threatening the weather, gardens and gardeners still push the frontiers. If we are on track for catastrophe, if evolution does an about-turn, it would be nice to know that the Rosa species, having pushed its frontiers well into the southern hemisphere, is here to stay for the remnants of the human race to enjoy. And with the rose there would hopefully be all the varieties of clematis that have migrated south to join the indigenous C. brachiata. No, not exactly to join it, because the latter frequents the bushveld and the new arrivals favour colder climes.

The garden world is abuzz with conversation about clematis. How to prune them? Be careful here, because some of them flower on this year’s wood and some on last year’s old wood. And some, indeed, on both. And how to pronounce the word? The experts at the Royal Horticultural Society apparently say CLEMatis.

Never mind the pronunciation, putting a name to plants seems to be a gesture of respect for their individuality. Richard Mabey, who wrote Nature Cure, thinks so. And he doesn’t scorn the common pet names of plants.

So local names personalise plants viz, the Hilton Daisy, the Barberton Daisy and the Zulu name for Clematis brachiata is ihlonzo leziduli — I would rather you asked a Zulu speaker to translate than risk attempting it myself; not even Eunice, my usual trusty interpreter, could help me. (Some translations, or mistranslations, into English sound quite rude.)

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